Thursday 3 May 2012
THE SPLENDOUR OF LOVE
What makes love a many-splendoured thing? Its unique characteristics that begin with the letter P.
Recently, I saw an old friend sauntering hand-in-hand with his new girlfriend. While his wife was going through chemotherapy for breast cancer, he had found a new flame. He later told me that his wife’s sickness had taken a toll on his marriage—he could not accept the fact his wife was no longer attractive after having undergone surgical removal of the breast. Furthermore, the stress of giving her emotional support was too much to bear.
This Valentine season, when love declarations abound amid gifts of roses and chocolates, we are once again reminded of the beauty of romance. But can love stand the test of time? What about the marriage vows—“for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health”? Are we able to uphold these vows? Can love be sustained during bad times?
What is this elusive thing called love which often defies definition? Some say, Love is a many- splendoured thing*, and they are not far off the mark. Is it a feeling or an action or both? What happens if the feelings disappear? Does it mean love is not there, as Hollywood would have us believe? Whatever the case, we cannot do without love because it is what makes the world go round.
The preeminence of love
The love chapter in the Bible tells us that love is more important than knowledge, abilities or being sacrificial (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). Love is supreme. Among the great virtues of faith, hope and love, LOVE stands above the rest (1 Corinthians 13:13).
It isn’t easy to appreciate this but when we’re approaching the end of our lives, we’ll be placing relationships foremost. We won’t be thinking of our titles, degrees or possessions. We won’t be missing the work at the office. We’d probably be thinking, How have I lived my life on earth? How much have I loved God and my family members?
During our final moments, our relationships with those closest to us will determine whether we experience a sense of fulfilment or regret. Have we placed LOVE foremost in our relationships?
The purity of love
The word love has been bandied around so much that its meaning has often been adulterated or even completely lost. Raging hormones and selfish motives prompt a man to say to his girlfriend, “Show me you love me by sleeping with me.” When that happens, love is spelt by a different four-letter word—lust.
True love seeks primarily to give, not to get. It does not manipulate the other person for self-gratification. On the contrary, it waits for sexual fulfilment within a committed relationship of caring and loving (marriage), of which the physical is but one aspect.
The power of love
When Holland was under Nazi occupation during World War II, a brave Christian lady called Corrie Ten Boom secretly hid several Jews in her home as they were being hunted down by the Nazis. Betrayed by an informer, she was sent to a harsh concentration camp where she held worship services to encourage and comfort the detainees.
Much later, in post-war Germany, she met the prison guard in church. “Will you forgive me?”, the man asked, seeking forgiveness for the cruel things he had done in the prison. Though her heart was cold towards him, she knew forgiveness was an act of the will, not an emotion. Struggling hard, she forgave him. She had come to know God’s prerequisite for forgiveness—if we don’t forgive those who have wronged us, then God won’t forgive us.
To forgive our enemies—and to bless and pray for them— goes against the grain of human nature. It wasn’t easy even for a spiritual giant like Corrie. Only a deep experience of God’s unconditional love can empower us to forgive. If God forgives us daily for our sins, how can we harbour bitterness against those who have hurt us?
The personification of love
If love is difficult to grasp, we have to admit that God made it so much easier for us through Jesus. Fleshed out in a person—the God-man Jesus—love is no longer a vague concept.
We see love personified in Jesus who, while dying at the cross, entrusted Mary to John’s care (John 19:26, 27). He was selfless, thinking of his mother, even at the lowest point of His life. And His last words, Forgive them for they know not what they do, can only come from One completely free from bitterness towards those who whipped, ridiculed and hung Him at the cross. What a powerful example of love in action!
The paradox of love
While softness and tenderness characterise love to a large extent, the danger is that it can become mushy and sentimental if we’re not careful. Love has to be tough as well.
Parents (more likely to be urban working parents) spoil their kids by giving them lots of money and toys to show that they love them. However they have to draw the boundaries to protect the child: set the times for work, play and sleep; know the company the child keeps; regulate the sites he frequents on the Internet. When the child violates the rules, he has to be reprimanded or punished appropriately. “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” The child who has his way most of the time will turn out to be a self-centred brat even in adulthood.
Similarly, God the Father disciplines us, His children, for our own good. “Do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when He rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those He loves, and He punishes everyone He accepts as a son” (Hebrews 12:5-6).
We have no difficulty seeing God as the gracious Father who loves us unconditionally. This theme shines through in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. But the flip side is that He is also the God of righteousness and justice. As AW Tozer says, “Truth has wings.” To emphasise the “soft” aspect of His character and downplay His “harsh” side is disastrous. We need to declare and embrace the whole truth like the apostle Paul: "I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God "(Acts 20:27). In fact, “our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29).
God loves us unconditionally but He is to be feared and revered too. We have to walk the straight and narrow way, deny ourselves and take up the cross daily, not merely rest in His unconditional love and blessing. Let the centrality of the cross cut deep into us—for we’re empowered to bless others only as we deny ourselves (John 12:24, Galatians 2:20).
'Once saved, always saved' is a belief which often follows the premise that God's love for us is unconditional. But one has only to reflect on what Jesus says concerning these perilous end times of wickedness and deception when many will fall away: “He who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matthew 24:13). So let’s watch and pray, pull up our socks and shape up spiritually. Let’s not be lulled into complacency that the law and righteousness no longer apply to us (Matthew 5:17, 18, 20; 1 Corinthians 10:6, 11).
The permanence of love
We started out by alluding to this man who couldn’t uphold the marriage vows when adversity struck. He abandoned his wife when she had cancer. But true love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7).
While Valentine’s day and other romantic occasions have a place in marriage, couples would do well to remember the importance of mutual commitment through thick and thin over the years. God compares marriage, the sacred institution He established, to the relationship between Christ and the church. Both were meant to last.
May our love for God endure, even as the unconditional love of God constrains us and keeps us in the faith. Both, us and God, have a part to play. “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2: 12, 13).
The above article was first published in Asian Beacon magazine, Feb 2010, issue 42.1.
*Love Is a Many-Splendoured Thing is a 1955 romantic movie set in Hong Kong. An American reporter (played by William Holden) falls in love with a Eurasian doctor (played by Jennifer Jones).
Its sentimental theme song is hauntingly beautiful and the lyrics include:
Love is nature's way of giving
a reason to be living,
The golden crown that makes a man a king.
Once on a high and windy hill,
In the morning mist, Two lovers kissed,
And the world stood still.